A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

6. Chapter Six


1.         Influence Occurs via Consciousness


An important and complex concept in causal logic, and specifically in the logic of volition, is that of influence. This refers to the impact on one’s volitional act, before or while it occurs, of some cognized natural event(s) and/or other volition(s) by oneself or other agent(s). Note well, the agent of volition concerned must have cognized the natural event(s) and/or other volition(s) in question, for the latter to count as ‘influences’. The distinguishing characteristic of influence, compared to other ‘conditions’ surrounding volition, is the intermediary of consciousness.

The philosophical importance of this concept is due to the confusion of most people relative to the concept of freedom of the will. On the one hand, most people in practice believe the will is free somehow; on the other hand, they realize it is varyingly affected by surrounding natural events and persons. These givens seem theoretically irreconcilable because the latter is mistaken for conditioning or partial causation, whereas it is influence, a different, subtler sort of causality.

For example: a man’s muscles are conditions affecting his volitions, in that he can in fact lift a certain weight with them and also in that he cannot lift more weight than they physically make possible; these same muscles however become influences on his volitions, only when thinking of their supposed limited strength he chooses another course than he would if they seemed stronger or weaker. Note well the subtle difference. Conditions and influences both affect actions, but not in comparable ways.

Influence is a special kind of conditioning, differing from an ordinary condition in that it operates specifically through the medium of consciousness, i.e. of any kind of cognitive process. The influencing object is one that has been sensed or imagined, perceived or conceived, remembered or projected, found evident or inferred, induced or deduced, or in any way thought about. What it influences, strictly speaking, is the Subject of such cognitions or thoughts, i.e. the eventual Agent of volition. When the agent finally ‘makes up his mind’ and wills something, he does so either in the direction of or against the tendency implied by the influence at hand.

Thus, influences imply positive or negative tendencies, temptations or spurs to voluntary action. If such tendency was in the direction of the eventual will, the will was facilitated by it; if such tendency was against the eventual will, the will had to overcome it. The agent is always free to accept or refuse to ‘follow’ a given influence, i.e. to ‘yield’ to its weight or ‘resist’ it.

The concept of effort refers to a degree of will. Volition is not an either-or proposition, something one switches on or off; it has degrees. Powerful will is required to overcome strong opposing influences; a weak agent is easily influenced to go against his will. Thus, we may speak of amount of effort involved in an act of will. If influences are favorable, the effort required to complete them is comparatively minimal. If influences are counteractive, the agent must pump proportionately more effort to get his way.

We may also view effort as a measure of the agent’s responsibility, his causal contribution or ownership of the action and its outcomes. The more effort he requires, the more wholly ‘his own’ they are. The less effort he requires, the greater the part played in them by surrounding influences.

The postulate of freedom of the will is that an influence is never alone sufficient to produce some effect, irrespective of the will of the agent concerned. Granting surrounding conditions allow the power of will in a given case, the agent always has ‘final say’ to resist the tendency implied by the influence, though such resistance might require a maximum of effort. As of when conditioning occurs via consciousness, i.e. in the way of influence, necessity does not apply, though the effort required to overcome influence may be daunting. Wherever necessity does apply, one cannot say that there was possibility of will, nor therefore speak of influence. The subject was simply overwhelmed, proving in this case to be not an agent but a mere patient. He may have been an observer of the events, but he was in this case a passive recipient of natural forces.

If this postulate is correct, it means that consciousness of an object cannot by itself move a spiritual entity (soul, subject) to action, by way of complete causation. Though such consciousness may play a major causative part in the action, approaching one hundred percent, still the action cannot effectively occur without the final approval and participation of the spiritual entity concerned. If necessity is indeed observed occurring, then the conditioning involved was not via consciousness of the object but directly due to the object.

Note that not only an influence cannot by itself ever move an agent into action, but also – granting the possibility of pure whim – the agent can well move himself in the absence of any influences. Therefore, influence is neither sufficient nor necessary for volition.

Thus, note well, we are not here involved in verbal manipulations. Freedom of the will is a thesis, a hypothesis, concerning the causal relations possible in the domain of the spirit. Consciousness may well occur in cases where there is no volition, i.e. where causation (necessity) takes over; but when this happens, consciousness has played no part in the effect. Consciousness becomes a condition only as of when causation recedes, and a space is leftover for volition to intervene; in that event, consciousness (or its objects, through it) becomes influential, and the will remains free (to at least some extent).

All volition seems subject to some influences to some degree. This seems evident of human volition, which usually occurs in response to an apparent mental and material context, though it could be argued to be at times indifferent to all influences. Other animals, likewise, and perhaps much more so, have powers of volition subject to influence.

With regard to God, our theoretical conception of Him by extrapolation to extremes suggests we should consider God as the quintessential ‘unmoved mover’, i.e. His volitions as always entirely independent of influences. That need not be taken to mean He acts without regard to anything, but rather that His power of will is so superior to influences severally or collectively that the latter are effectively negligible. A tiny drop of water cannot affect the ocean!

As for the relation between God and lower volitional beings, we should consider that just as God retains the power to interfere in causative processes (i.e. to Him all natural laws are inertial rather than necessary, as earlier discussed), He retains the power to ‘overwhelm’ the willpower of any creature’s soul. Thus, the power of will of any limited creature is in principle always conditional upon the infinite God’s continued tolerance. However, the Divine power to dominate or overwhelm lesser wills seems unused in practice (judging by our religious documents, at least[1]). Rather, God seems to condition and/or influence lesser wills – giving agents life or prematurely killing them, or affecting their bodily, mental or external environments, or again making items appear that (strongly or to some extent) influence them in some way. This Divine preference is assumed to stem from an ethical motive, to sustain freedom of the will and therefore personal responsibility[2].


2.         Knowledge of Effort, Influence and Freedom


Effort and influence are, clearly, derivative concepts of cognition and volition. The empirical basis of our knowledge of them is therefore the same as for cognition and volition, primarily introspection or subjective apprehension. This direct self-knowledge, which I call intuition (or apperception), concerns objects that do not per se have inner or outer phenomenal qualities – i.e. no shape, shading or color, no sound, no smell or taste, no touch qualities – although they may produce perceptible objects.

Just as we intuit our own will, so we intuit the amount of effort we have put into it. Colloquially, we say that effort is ‘felt’. ‘Physical effort’ is experienced as a sensation in the body; but ‘mental effort’, or more precisely ‘spiritual effort’, is a more subtle experience, which may or not give rise to discernable phenomena. Measurement of effort is therefore, of course, not exact and absolute, but rough and comparative. It depends not only on the immediate intuition, but also on personal memory of past intuitions for purposes of calibration.

If estimate of effort is inexact with regard to oneself, it is all the more so with reference to the effort of others. We can only guess it, by analogy to one’s own experience and by observation of indirect indices, like (in the case of physical effects of it) the sweat on someone’s brow or his facial expressions or bodily postures. Thus, as for will, knowledge of effort is generally based on adductive arguments.

It is not inconceivable that one day soon biologists succeed in measuring effort more objectively and scientifically, by means of physical instruments. Quantification of effort would then become more precise and verifiable. Such practices will of course involve adductive reasoning, an initial hypothesis that such and such detectable physiological or neurological phenomena may be interpreted as proportional to the effort of will. But in the meantime, we do have a rough yardstick in our personal experience.

Influence is a more abstract concept, not experienced or measurable directly, but constructed with reference to amounts of effort involved in willful action (making it easier or harder). An object is said to influence one’s action if its appearance to oneself directly or indirectly affects or conditions the action, in contradistinction to an object affecting or conditioning action by mere existence. Note well the phenomenological differentia.

If the influence occurs only by perception of the object, it is simple, direct. If it occurs after considerable mental processing of the image of the object, it is proportionately complex, oblique. Since thought about an object perceived may have many pathways, of varying intricacy, the influence by one and the same object may be multiple, involving many theses and layers, some of which may well be conflicting. Even at the perceptual level, the various sense organs yield different aspects of the (presumably same) object. Thus, one and the same object may give rise to many, variant influences. We must keep this insight in mind, to avoid oversimplification in our understanding of influence and volition.

Another epistemological issue concerns our estimates of the relative weights of different simultaneous influences. Such estimates are based in part on generalization of personal observations (when data on conjunction and separation is available); but in large part, they are hypotheses, adhered to so long as they continue to be confirmed by our experiences of effort. Knowledge of one’s own psyche is very often as tentative as that of nature, or of other people’s or animals’ psyches. People often think that they have ‘direct insight’ into, or at least ‘deductive knowledge’ of, inner events or relations, when in fact all they have is inductive knowledge. What is important is to realize that the latter is pretty good, quite enough.

Knowledge of freedom of the will is partly introspective, but mainly adductive. Our inner sense of freedom of will provides the occasion for the theoretical search for supporting data and postulates. We may have faith in freewill as a working hypothesis, but are still called upon to develop over the long term convincing definitions of it and arguments in its favor. The formula above proposed for freedom of the will is, I think, a good start.

The doctrine of freewill is important psychologically and socially, the foundation of morality and law. The doctrine declares our responsibility for our actions, however many and strong the forces impinging upon us may seem. Thus, a criminal cannot disclaim responsibility for his crimes, arguing he was ‘driven’ against his will.

We should note the doctrine’s own influence on human action, by the power of suggestion: if one believes he can do or avoid something he is more likely to be able to do so, than if he thinks that he cannot do so no matter how much he tries. Thus, belief in freedom of the will increases one’s ‘freedom’, and disbelief in it is an added obstacle.


3.         Formal Analysis of Influence


It is empirically evident that the Agents of will are all conscious beings: they are Subjects. This observation suggests a fundamental feature of volition, that it is allied to and inconceivable without consciousness. Given that insight, we can better understand the mechanics of influence.

We have seen that a natural event or another agent can influence an agent in his will, by presenting to the latter an idea which, though it does not definitely determine or control his subsequent will, constitutes a more or less important parameter in its exercise. Note that the idea presented may be illusory, just as well as real; but insofar as it is aroused by something or someone, the latter is influential. Note also that the ‘other agent’ influencing one may be an earlier moment of one’s own existence (as e.g., in the case of habits).

Influence is a causal relation of sorts, though a weak one since it is never determining due to the essential freedom of the willing soul. Our linguistic practices are evidence that we do consider influence to be a form of causality. We often use verbs suggesting it, e.g. ‘he caused me to do it ‘ or ‘he made me do it’. Influence involves causation, in that some object or appearance (if only partially and contingently) gives rise to some cognition or idea. We may also consider as causation the relation between the appearance, or its cognitive effect, and the fact that the eventual volition, if any, is ‘made easier’ or ‘made harder’ by it. But influence in itself, as a relation between the object cognized or its cognition, on the one hand, and the outcome of volition, cannot be classified as causation, nor for that matter as volition. It is another category of causality, mediating those two.

We might express influence formally as follows: let A be an agent, and W be his will at a given time. Let object Y be some event naturally occurring, or willed to occur by some agent(s) B (which B may include agent A at a previous time). Let content of consciousness X be some belief, opinion or knowledge aroused in A by Y (X may of course simply be Y as cognized by A, or X may have some more complicated cognitive relation to Y).

Then, we can say “X influences A to will W”, providedA with awareness of X requires less effort to will W, than A without awareness of X” – that is, provided X inclines towards W, the will of A. If, alternatively, X inclined away from W, then A would need more effort to will W with X than without it, and we would say that “X influences A not-to will W”.

These forms define positive and negative influence, both of which may be referred as simply ‘influence’, leaving the direction of influence (for or against) indefinite. If the effort requirement is exactly equal either way, there is effectively no influence. The amounts of effort involved are known in various ways, as earlier discussed. Note that in everyday discourse the implied forms “X inclines to W” and “X inclines away from W” are sometimes be taken as equivalent to the forms of influence, because it is tacitly understood that X was cognized by A and A willed W.

We can of course, mutadis mutandis, similarly clarify various forms of influence involving notX and/or notW as terms, such as “notX influences A to will notW”.

In practice, we would consider that whatever gives rise to an influence is itself an influence. That is, the occasion of X that we have labeled Y, or its natural causatives or its volitional agent B – can all be called influences once X is so established. But, note well, whether that practice is strictly speaking valid needs to be discussed. The issue is a logical one, concerning causal chaining or syllogism. It is left open for now.

Thus, to review the process of influence in sequence:

  1. Something (Y) natural occurs, or is made to occur through the will of some agent or agents (B, which may be or include A).
  2. That occurrence (Y) comes to the attention of a subject (A), or causatively produces some physical, mental or spiritual affect in him that he becomes aware of, and possibly thinks about further (X).
  3. This subject (A) then engages in some act of will (W), whether a direct volition or an indirect one.
  4. And it so happens that such will (W) involved less effort for that agent (A) in the presence of that thought (X) than in its absence.
  5. Then the thought (X) can be said to have positively influenced the agent (A) in so willing (W).

Note that Y and X may be one or two. If A is directly aware of Y, then it is the term of reference. If, however, A is not aware of Y, but of some effect of it labeled X, then X is the influential term. The influential term is whatever is the object of cognition, i.e. some appearance, be it real or illusory, faint or intense, far or near. The cognition involved may be sensation (then X is a physical phenomenon) or introspective perception (then X is a mental phenomenon), or even intuition. In the latter case, A is aware of prior reactions of his own soul (so X is a spiritual event). Objects of sensory perception include things observed outside or within one’s body, including visceral emotions. Mental objects include[3] memories, imaginations, and possibly mental emotions. The object of awareness may also be an abstraction (then X is a conceptual object, a term within a more or less complex thought). Usually, all these means of cognition are involved, in various combinations.

It should be remarked that the causation by Y of X is a principle to be separately established, but which need not be known to A to be operative. More interesting is the question concerning the comparison of amount of effort, involved for A to will W in the presence or absence of X. For A might well be aware of his effort while he wills W in the presence of X; but that does not tell him what effort he would feel in the absence of X! The answer is that one does not need to be aware of the influence of something for such influence to be operative. Consciousness is crucial, but it is the consciousness by A of X, not the consciousness by A of his effort with or without X or of the influence of X. The agent need not at all take notice of the effort expended, though his attention is likely to grow with the effort expended.

Indeed, the agent may positively think or claim to think that something has no influence which in fact has some influence, or inversely that something which in fact has no influence has some! In such cases, note, the thought or claim must be considered as a separate, superimposed item, which may or not have a degree of influence of its own, quite apart from the fact.

The above formula is relevant only to the logician, or to whoever wishes to establish the existence of a causal relation of influence between something (X) and an agent (A) engaged in a volition (W). Just as the relation of causation, for instance between Y and X at this moment, cannot be established with one observation, but only through repeated observation over time – so with influence. We cannot say for sure that X influences A to will W with reference to any one observation, like the amount of effort in the presence of X. We must refer also to other events, such as the effort in the absence of X.

And indeed, here as with induction of causation in general, certainty is proportional to the frequency of such observations. The more often we have observed the conjunction, the more confident of a causal relation we become. Knowledge of influence is empirical and inductive.

Notice the relation between the object X (as cognized by A) and the amount of effort (say E, for A to will W) – it is a standard causative relation. It consists of two if–then propositions (natural hypotheticals), “if X, then effort E(X)” and “if notX, then effort E(notX)”, and a comparative proposition “effort E(X) is less than effort E(notX)”. Nothing special – the procedures for such knowledge are commonplace. This refers to the case of positive influence by X. In the case of negative influence by X, E(X) would be greater than E(notX); and in the case of no influence, the effort needed would be the same either way.

Of course, any calculation of effort must take into account not just one influence, but all influences currently active for or against the intended will. The total effort requirement call it E, would be the effort requirement if the will was uninfluenced by anything (E0), plus all the additional efforts required to overcome negative influences (E), minus all the reduced efforts made possible by positive influences (E+). That is, E = E0 + E – E+.

Effort is something the volitional agent must call forth out of himself or put forward, as a precondition to his succeeding in doing his will. Effort is known to us by inner experience; but the agent need not be conscious of his effort every time he exercises it. Nevertheless, in our definition of influence we have assumed that some effort is always involved in volition, and that its quantity varies, being greater in some circumstances than in others. Whether or not it is focused on, effort is there wherever volition occurs. Volition implies effort.

Also remember, effort is relative. The quantities of effort required for each action vary from individual to individual, and even within the lifetime of a given individual. I may find a job easier to do today than yesterday, for a variety of reasons (e.g. I no longer have a cold); and some other person may find the same job more difficult any day (being less muscular or brainy than me, say).


4.         Incitement


We have distinguished influence from ordinary conditioning, with reference to the consciousness that mediates the cause and effect in the case of influence. We have pointed out that influences may equally be natural events or events brought about by volition or both, provided in any case the one influenced has cognized these events. Let us now consider more closely the possible interactions of different volitional agents.

One or more volitional agent(s) may impact on another in the way of ordinary conditioning, i.e. by causation. For example, a man while knocked out is tied up by others; as he awakens, he tries unsuccessfully to move his arms and legs, before becoming conscious that he is tied up. His attempt to move are acts of will, whose limited scope is not due to influence but to causation, since he did not notice the rope before trying (but rather became aware of his predicament by trying). If the man happens to be Samson or Superman, he might break the ropes on first trial: his will has overcome the man-made obstacle they present. On the other hand, if the man feels or sees the rope before trying to move, his will is then braced against the resistance of the ropes – and in that case, it is appropriate to say that influence is involved.

A subsidiary concept of influence, by one or more volitional agent(s) of another, is incitement – which may be defined as intentional influence. In the case of unintentional or accidental influence the influencing agent(s) will something with certain purposes in mind, which do not include the goal of influencing the other agent in a certain direction; yet that other agent is indeed influenced, since he cognized that previous will or its outcomes and acted in the same direction, or against it, in relation to such cognition. We have incitement, by contrast, if the one of the goals of the influencing agent(s) was in fact to influence the other agent a certain way, interfering with his life, presenting him with some enticement or obstacle.

We may formalize incitement by means of propositions like “X incites A to will W”. This is a specialized form of “X influences A to will W”, which it implies, where X is something willed by some agent(s) B, who intend(s) agent A to will W. (Thus for the positive form; similarly, mutadis mutandis for the negative form and for forms with negative terms.)

Here, the will X of B could be any perceivable physical activity or product thereof, such as a push or pull, a punch or arm-lock, a gesture or speech, a written text, or whatever. Such will, note well, has to have as one of its goals the orientation of A in a certain sense. The mere awareness by B that A might perchance be so led does not qualify as intention; B has to want that result. Though A must cognize X (and that before willing W), he does not have to cognize any of the intentions of B. But X must in fact influence A to will W, i.e. reduce the effort needed for A to will W and thus the likelihood of his doing so. Influence without intention and intention without influence are equally inadequate to qualify for incitement. And of course, just as influence does not eliminate freedom of the will, so incitement does not.

Thus, whereas influence refers to the consciousness of the influenced agent, incitement refers to both that and the consciousness of the influencing agent(s). The concept of incitement has gray areas, with regard to who and what (and where and when) the intentions involved are aimed at. We must distinguish specificities of intention, ranging from general intentions to more and more defined ones. The former intend a kind of result, whereas the latter focus on a designated agent performing a precisely specified action. For example, advertisers want to sell a product to as many people as possible; but it would not be accurate to say that they incited Mr. Smith in particular to buy a particular sample of it (even on a given date in a given shop).

The most obvious case of incitement is physical coercion or intimidation. This may involve actual blows or incarceration, to someone or to others that this person cares for, or merely the threat of such direct or indirect physical suffering, with a view to get the victim to do or not-do something. The legal authorities may resort to such measures to protect society. Or thugs of all kinds may use them for their own selfish ends. Depending on one’s courage, training and motivation, one may often resist such attempts at domination. Sometimes, individuals try to and fail; sometimes, yielding to fear of pain, they do not try at all. People usually manage to defend themselves collectively, if not individually.

Intimidation, involving the threat of force to someone or the use of it against his loved ones, is of course a psychological rather than physical means of incitement. Indeed, most incitement is psychological, ranging from promises of some advantage or reward to threats of some disadvantage or punishment. The promise or threat is often very tacit and vague, though sometimes explicit and defined; it may in either case be true or false. Its content may fall under any existential category: it may be physical, psychological, spiritual, economic, social, political, or whatever.

Incitement by means of language in any form (gestures and sounds, speech in words, written language) is considered as special enough to be named distinctively, say as ‘persuasion’[4]. We may make further distinctions with reference to the interrelation involved: ‘ordering’ (by an authority or superior), ‘entreating’ (by an equal or inferior), ‘instructing’ (by a teacher), ‘example giving’ or ‘emotionally inspiring’ (by a role model), ‘advising’ (by a friend), and so forth. Often, pressure is applied by seemingly merely giving information (true, false or uncertain), without specifying what it is in aid of; an idea is imbedded in a mind, with the likelihood that it will lead to certain desired conclusions and actions. A promised reward for a certain course of action is an ‘incentive’; a promised penalty is a ‘disincentive’. If an incentive turns out to have been a false promise, it was probably intended as ‘bait’.

Note that in relationships of influence between two or more volitional agents, the interaction of wills may be competitive or cooperative. We should not necessarily view the influencer(s) as active and the influenced agent as passive. The agents may have conflicting or shared purposes, with or without intention to do so. They may work at cross-purposes or together, struggling or in harmony, in a variety of relations – for examples, as commercial partners or political opponents, as equal co-workers or as boss and employee or as master and slave, as parents and children or as teacher and student.

All such relations can in principle be defined by analyzing the intentions of the players involved. Some interactions are de facto, some are contractual, mutual agreements by word of mouth or in writing; some are more or less enforceable, some not. We see here how the whole range of human or animal social life becomes an object of aetiological study.

An important issue in this context is that of parsing responsibility. Volitional acts are primarily the responsibility of their agent, no matter how much they are influenced by external factors or persons, since he has free will. Nevertheless, in a more nuanced sense of the term, his responsibility may be mitigated with reference to the influences impinging on him. If something good was very easy to do, the praise in doing it is less marked than if it was difficult. If something bad was very hard to do, the blame in doing it is more marked than if it was easy. Our concern may be moral or legal.

When we consider human influences, and especially intentional ones, sharing the praise or blame is necessary, since more than one agent is involved in the result. Obviously, unintentional influence implies a lesser share of responsibility for the influencer than intentional influence (i.e. incitement). In some cases, the scenario relates to an association between two or more persons who perform some deed in common. We might then ask, who played what role, and what their mutual relationships were, to determine the hierarchies of responsibility involved. Such judgments are not based on exact science (to date). Many virtues are needed to arrive at a fair judgment, among them respect for facts, attention to detail, impartiality, the sense of justice, a pure spirit, wisdom.[5]


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004),Chapter 5.



[1]           I make no claim to special knowledge of the Divine, of course. As a philosopher, I merely conceive possibilities, cogent hypotheses, concerning God. Here, I note that while ‘overwhelming of lesser wills’ would seem doctrinally consistent with the idea of God’s omnipotence, it is not a doctrine stressed within Judaism and similar religions.

[2]           Clearly, the problems of theodicy remain whether we assume God’s action to include overpowering wills, or to be limited to conditioning and influencing. It would have mattered little to victims of the Holocaust whether God saved them by overwhelming Hitler’s hate-filled will, or by killing or otherwise neutralizing him early enough.

[3]           One could here also include telepathic communications, if we suppose that telepathy exists.

[4]           I use the term very broadly, including both fair persuasion and persuasion by distortion.

[5]           I particularly recommend in this context the already mentioned work of Hart and Honoré.

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